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Amy Traub

Immigrants Not “Stealing” Americans’ Jobs — But Don’t Relax Yet

A new study by the highly-regarded Pew Hispanic Center unearths yet more evidence that immigrant workers do not take jobs from Americans. Analyzing employment patterns in all 50 states and the District of Columbia from 1990 to 2000 and 2000 to 2004, the study finds no consistent association between the growth of the immigrant population and the employment prospects of native workers, even those with a similar age and educational profile to the arriving immigrants.

So should we all just sit back and stop worrying about immigration policy? Is the status quo, in which millions of undocumented workers live without authorization (or rights) in the United States and labor in substandard jobs, actually a beneficial, or at least benign situation for U.S. citizens?

Not quite.

The Pew Hispanic study looks only at the employment rate of native-born workers, not at the much more complicated question of wages. While the study provides strong evidence that increases in the immigrant population don't drive up unemployment among natives, it doesn't address the effect that a large disempowered workforce, afraid of being reported to the authorities and deported if they dare to complain about an unsafe workplace, not getting paid overtime, or not getting paid at all, may have on the wages and working conditions of native-born workers. In other words, American citizens still have a stake in seeing that immigrant workers get the workplace rights they need to raise the floor of the U.S. labor market for everyone.

The AFL-CIO recognized this powerfully on Wednesday, when it announced a new partnership with the National Day Labor Organizing Network, an association of local groups working to improve conditions for the largely immigrant and frequently undocumented day labor workforce. As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney explained: "Day laborers in the United States often face the harshest forms of workplace problems and this exploitation hurts us all because when standards are dragged down for some workers, they are dragged down for all workers."

So middle-class Americans, and those trying to work their way towards a middle-class standard of living, need not worry that immigrant workers will take their jobs. It's not the presence of immigrant workers, but the fact that undocumented workers have no enforceable rights that should concern us. And, as I've argued before, this distinction has a decisive impact on how we evaluate immigration policy.

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Posted at 10:10 AM, Aug 11, 2006 in Economic Opportunity | Economy | Employment | Immigration | Labor
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